It will be significant, nonetheless, especially if the advantage gained by Henrik Stenson over Phil Mickelson in that wind sees him become the first Swede to win a men’s major today.
One behind at the start, 40-year-old Stenson now leads by the same margin. It was earned by a gutsy third-round 68 for a 12-under-par 201 total. Bidding to claim his second Claret Jug in four years, 46-year-old Mickelson effectively lost the upper hand by taking 4s to the birdie-2s made by his playing partner at the 14th and 17th holes.
It looks like a two-horse race over the closing 18 holes in the 145th Open Championship and ninth to be staged at Royal Troon. Another American, Bill Haas, and Englishman Andrew Johnston sit six and seven shots off the lead after 69 and 70 respectively.
They either need to shoot the lights out today or see both Stenson and Mickelson suffer spectacular collapses.
The corresponding day at St Andrews 12 months ago had been blighted by high winds. With gusts up to 30mph a possibility on this occasion, sensible precautions were taken, even if moving up tees at four holes – the eighth (where it was reduced to 100 yards), 11th, 16th and 17th – didn’t meet the approval of everyone in the field. In addition, the greens had neither been cut nor rolled while certain pins had been “adjusted”.
As it transpired, the wind didn’t get above 20mph, but that was still sufficient to provide a stern test. In the crosswind, the best score was 68, achieved by Haydn Porteous in the first match out then by Brandt Snedeker, Steve Stricker and, last but certainly not least, Stenson.
As Mickelson and Stenson headed to the first tee, early thrusts had been made by the defending champion, Zach Johnson, namesake Dustin and another American, JB Holmes. Bidding to become the first player since Padraig Harrington in 2008 to successfully defend the title, Zach had the wind taken out of his sails by a double-bogey at the par-3 fifth before dropping further down the field when a further two shots were spilled at the 10th. Five-under for the tournament after going out in 33, Dustin came a cropper at the 11th. His 7 there came after two of his compatriots, Rickie Fowler and Charley Hoffman, had taken 8s. Holmes had opened with an 80 in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart after his clubs were lost in transit from the US and only arrived in Inverness just before he teed off. They obviously behaved better as he raced out in 32 to move to six-under.
In light rain, Stenson started like a train. In went a 12-foot birdie putt at the first – a reward for his bold but sensible decision to take a hybrid there. Why anyone goes with driver is a mystery when there’s little to gain but lots to lose. Stenson’s strategy moved him level with Mickelson straight away. Both players birdied the third – Stenson getting up and down from the greenside bunker he found at the 377-yard par-4 while Mickelson conjured up one of his magical flop shots over that same trap to get his second to eight feet. While unable to convert an eagle chance at the next, Stenson’s tap-in birdie moved him into the lead on 12-under. “A flying start,” he admitted afterwards.
As Holmes slipped to back-to-back bogeys at the 14th and 15th – he eventually signed for a 69 – Haas and Johnston dug deep to hang on to the coat-tails of the leading pair. Haas holed from one those fiendish bunkers at the right side of the green for a birdie at the Postage Stamp.
In the group behind, compatriot Tony Finau came close to a hole-in-one only to see his ball spin back over the cup and end up in a bunker. How cruel. After opening with six pars, Johnston came alive with birdies at the seventh and ninth then chipped in for a 3 at the 13th.
It was advantage Mickelson again by the time the last group reached the turn. It was the result of Stenson dropping shots at the sixth and eighth. He found a nasty spot in Finau’s bunker at the Postage Stamp. With one foot in and one out, he had to play away from the flag. The Swede avoided slipping two behind by salvaging par at the 10th from 35 feet.
“That was the key moment in the round as it allowed me to stay in the ball game when Phil had a bit momentum,” said Stenson. He’d reached that stage of the round with just 13 putts.
His Nordic colleague, Soren Kjeldsen, had been the pair’s closest challenger after getting to eight-under after seven before falling away quickly on the back nine.
In truth, it won’t be until we get there today that this contest is decided. As the two players closest to the leading duo swapped positions – Johnston bogeyed the 14th while Haas made his fifth birdie of the day at the 16th – Mickelson delivered two of the day’s key moments. He was close to finding the gorse with a pushed tee shot but holed from nine feet to escape with a par at the 12th.
In went a 25-footer for a birdie at the next to open up a two-shot lead. Not for long, though. The par-14th delivered a two-shot swing. Stenson made 2 from six feet; Mickelson signed for 4 after missing from three feet to three-putt. They were locked together again on 11-under.
Mickelson birdied the 16th from six feet to regain the upper hand only for the second short hole on the back nine – the 220-yard 17th – to see another two-shot swing in favour of the Swede. He was walking after his 18-footer there before it dropped into the hole. Mickelson’s bogey on this occasion stemmed from a wayward tee shot. It’s difficult to see the winner being anyone other than these two.
The stage is set for a heavyweight contest to decide this Claret Jug joust.